Sunday, 11 March 2018

Retro Hugos 1943 — Short Stories

In terms of short fiction,
1942 was a great year.
And Astounding SF
led the way in publishing
issue after issue of brilliant
short stories. 
Science fiction has changed since 1942-43.

This is not only true of the content, but the format, the fandom, and the way it connects to the culture as a whole.

Nowhere is this more true than in short fiction.

Many of us will have read the stories of 1942 collected in anthologies, stitched together into novels, and bearing the weight of their publication history. Most of the works are now primarily available in author-centred best-of anthologies.

And this leads to a historicity-bias in the Retro Hugo awards where authors with long and storied careers like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein have a leg up over lesser-known authors like Colin Keith, Eric Frank Russell or Robert S. Richardson. To some degree the award can end up as a ‘lifetime achievement award,’ rather than being based on the individual work.

As with all structural biases in voting systems, it is incumbent upon those of us participating to be aware of those biases and to challenge ourselves to question how these structures are influencing the nominations.

The context in which we appreciate older works of science fiction is inevitably a different one than those in which the works were first published. In some ways, this gives present day readers a deeper perspective on the enduring value of works published 75 years in the past.

But it also presents a barrier to understanding how these works were in dialogue with other narratives
A.E. Van Vogt's classic story
The Weapons Shop was
illustrated by William
(Image via WordsEnvisioned)
including the political context of the day. One notable work that should be considered in context with its time is A.E. Van Vogt’s The Weapons Shop.

This was the only short story published in 1942 that was selected to be included in Silverberg’s well-known anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 1 (1929-1964). That tome – which honoured short stories published prior to the foundation of the Nebula Awards – included the “best” works as voted on by the members of the SFWA. We surmise then that the Retro Nebula for 1942 might have gone to The Weapons Shop.

The story – which sees a small-town merchant named Fara butting heads with an illegal weapons shop – is beloved by second-amendment advocates. Van Vogt (ironically from Canada, where weapons rights are far more restricted than in America) offers an idealized implacable force in the weapons shops, which exist in opposition to the tyranny of the state. Eventually, Fara comes around to the weapons’ seller’s point of view and takes up arms against the state.

The Weapons Shop is also as much about propaganda as it is weapons – Fara is a devoted defender of the Empire until he is shown the true face of the Empress. While those of us who do not believe in the unfettered right to bear arms should remember is when reading The Weapons Shop is that it was written and published in an era when there were despicable regimes marching in Europe that relied on this type of propaganda, and on the silencing of dissent.

But the ideology behind those who are selling the weapons is ill-defined and nebulous at best. These weapons shops, it is implied, sell freedom rather than weapons, but what that means is unclear. To further undermine the work, Fara’s only real choice is between allying himself with either one of two implacable and unyielding forces – and even that isn’t much of a choice.

In 1942, Asimov's story Foundation
was illustrated by M.Isip.
(Image via Gabriel Schenk)
The importance — and influence — of Isaac Asmiov’s short story The Encyclopedists cannot be overstated. When reading it today, most of us experience it as the second part of the novel Foundation, but in 1942 it was the introduction to Hari Seldon, to the Foundation and to psychohistory.

When it was in the May, 1942 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction under the title of Foundation, it was published alongside a bevy of other stories about prognostication including Alfred Bester’s excellent Push Of A Finger.

The May 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction is probably too pricy (and hard-to-find) an item for most fans and collectors to track down just to have the original experience. Thankfully, an Oxfordian science fiction fan named Gabriel Schenk scanned it and put the entire thing online. With a couple of excellent illustrations by M. Isip to liven up the story, it’s worth reading and trying to appreciate the story as a one-off on its own merits.

If there had never been another story published in the Foundation universe, The Encyclopedists would
When reading the original Foundation
stories and thinking about the context
in which Asimov wrote them, Trantor's
gleaming spires become tied to New
York's rapidly changing 1942 skyline.
(image via Wikipedia) 
have stood on its own – it encapsulates essentially all of the big ideas of the series: the mathematics of history, the decline and fall of an empire, and the ennobling positivist view of the ability of humanity to alter its destiny. While later stories built on this foundational story, everything that makes the Foundation series great was right there in this initial blueprint.

In this story, Asimov offers us the series’ most unforgettable – and quotable – protagonist Salvor Hardin, the mayor of Trantor. In the context of when this story was published, just five months after Pearl Harbor, his famous quote “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” might be seen as an surprising anti-war exhortation.

Re-reading The Encyclopedists on its own, and attempting to strip it of the weight of history, was a surprisingly revelatory exercise that increased our already high esteem for Asimov’s story.

Alfred Bester’s Push Of A Finger covers some similar themes to Foundation; scientists with a new way of seeing the future and working to prevent disaster. But unlike the more famous work, Bester writes with a touch of comedy. Although one suspects that Bester’s long-forgotten work will not receive an award, we would encourage you to consider it for your Retro Hugo nominations.

Eric Frank Russel's
Mechanistra is usually
found in the collection
Men, Martians and
(Image via
Another lesser-known work that is likely to be on our Retro Hugo ballots is Eric Frank Russel’s Mechanistra, the second – and possibly best – of his Starship Marathon series of stories. This humourous story, involves the crew of the starship encountering mechanical termite-like aliens that are hostile to all organic life. Russell’s prose is lively with lurid descriptions of alien life and conflicts.

Of Heinlein’s prolific output of short works in 1942, Waldo is probably the most well-known. I would suggest, however that it is Goldfish Bowl from the March edition of Astounding that is a more interesting work to consider nominating. The story, whose human protagonists are trapped as exhibits in a human zoo is melancholic and nuanced in ways that much of Heinlein’s work is not. That being said, none of Heinlein’s stories are likely to make our ballots, and certainly not My Object All Sublime.

Hal Clement’s first published short story Proof is an excellent debut that presaged significant themes
Twenty-year-old Hal Clement
as he appeared in his 1943
Harvard yearbook.
(image via Mariners Museum)  
that he would explore throughout his career. Clement – just 20 when he wrote the story – imagines life that evolved from magnetic fields and gas in the sun exploring the solar system and being befuddled by the existence of the Earth.

When considering works for the Retro Hugos, it was interesting to consider how these works were distributed, their availability to readers, and the limitations of our collective cultural memory.

Because of these differing contexts, we suspect that there are often works that would have garnered more attention had the 1943 Hugos actually been voted on in 1943.

That being said, of the works we have managed to track down and read from 1942, the most well-remembered short story did in fact stand out as the most exemplary work.

The reputation of Asimov’s The Encyclopedists is well-earned as one of the finest works of Golden Age science fiction.

It is likely that it will – and should – win the 1943 Retro Hugo.

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